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Boys, Bye: Will Pop Stay to See the Dawn of a New Era in San Antonio?

The Spurs’ future suddenly looks bright, even without Kawhi Leonard. But will Gregg Popovich be the one to lead them there? Here are the three biggest questions for San Antonio this offseason.

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Think of San Antonio as the person in group projects who always comes through. The reliable one. The mature one. The one who, no matter how bullshit the assignment, makes the grade. The Spurs finished with a 48-33 record—one more win than last season, and 4.5 more wins than Vegas’s prediction—and made the playoffs without Kyle Anderson, Danny Green, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, and of course, without Dejounte Murray, who tore his right ACL before the regular season began. Without the 22-year-old Murray, it seemed like the Spurs could fall out of the playoffs for the first time in more than two decades. Without the old heads, and without one of their replacements in Murray, who were the Spurs?

Winners. Duh. Have you been paying attention? San Antonio hasn’t had a losing season since 1996-97. Through injuries and a boycott from their superstar, the Spurs have remained winners. Why would 2018-19, especially with the addition of DeMar DeRozan, be any different?

DeRozan’s old-man game allowed San Antonio to lean fully into its own old-man game; it attempted the fewest 3s in the league (yet led in accuracy, shooting 39.2 percent behind the arc), with DeRozan taking the most midrange shots in the NBA and LaMarcus Aldridge taking the second most. The typical Spursian who-the-hell-are-these-guys players emerged (hello, Derrick White; hello, Davis Bertans; hello, Jakob Poeltl; hello, Bryn Forbes) to create an operable unit behind DeRozan and Aldridge. It didn’t matter how far San Antonio went in the playoffs—they’d done it again. So it seems safer to not wonder if they can pull it off again next season, but how, exactly, they will.

Will Pop return?

Everyone—the team, Spurs fans, casual NBA fans—hopes Popovich coaches for a couple more years. No one is making any premature tributes to gently force him on his way like, say, Dirk Nowitzki, who hadn’t even officially announced his retirement as Dallas went through all the motions.

I do wonder if Popovich feels some responsibility to stay long enough to make real strides with the young players on the roster. His legacy is so great in San Antonio, and his ties are so deep, that he probably wouldn’t be comfortable leaving the team in bad (or even average) shape. One can also read into the Leonard trade: Popovich is also team president, meaning that he had considerable influence in trading for DeRozan, a player in his prime, rather than a gaggle of young players and picks. Perhaps the coach has his eyes on one more deep playoff run.

Popovich has given no indication that he wants to retire. “I don’t know the answer,” he told Marc Stein in January. Popovich is the coach of Team USA through 2020, so he wouldn’t have to go cold turkey if he did decide to step away. Yet Pop is as much the Spurs’ identity as Parker, Tim Duncan, and Ginobili were, and without Leonard, he’s the one remaining bridge that connects this Spurs team to the previous era. Still, if he were to retire, the end of the playoffs seems like the time to do it.

How do the Spurs revamp their bench?

The reborn-again Rudy Gay will become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. San Antonio could offer the 32-year-old another one-year deal, as it did last summer, and the summer before that . Gay, who was thought to be capital-w Washed following a torn Achilles in January 2017, has been shockingly useful for the team—as misused players often are under Popovich. But should Gay want to leave, or should the Spurs decide to concentrate on developing their younger forwards, the rotation will have to be shaken up.

Forbes started all but one game this season, but he may return to coming off the bench if the Spurs decide to start Murray and White next to DeRozan next season. Bertans and Lonnie Walker IV will also have opportunities for increased roles. But the rest of bench spots are up for grabs, and there are a number of forwards available this summer they can go after with about $14.5 million in projected salary-cap space: Bojan Bogdanovic, Trevor Ariza, Al-Farouq Aminu, and C.J. Miles, for example. Considering that a team with DeRozan (29), Aldridge (33), and Popovich (70) is in win-now mode by default, signing a player with more experience might make sense, especially as the Spurs enter the summer slightly under the cap.

Which washed veteran will the Spurs revive?

It’s a nearly annual tradition for San Antonio to invite a veteran on his way out of the league into the organization, where the vet is then completely revitalized. I don’t know what kind of age-reversing voodoo happens in that training facility, but if you told me Gabrielle Union goes there, I’d believe it. Gay’s resurgance was a marvel; David Lee was a miracle.

The market is filled with post-prime players this summer: Wesley Matthews, Jamal Crawford, Marcin Gortat, Luol Deng, and Carmelo Anthony (hey, Melo does love the midrange!). But I’d be more interested in the Spurs making a slightly younger, bad-situation/worse-performance guy new again. Remember Harrison Barnes? How about Patrick Patterson? Though nothing should stand in the way of a Murray-White backcourt next season, it would be nice to see Rajon Rondo’s furious energy channeled into some good again.